Dante Alighieri is beyond doubt the greatest of Italian poets, and, many readers think, one of the greatest poets that Western civilization has produced. W. B. Yeats called him "the chief imagination of Christendom." T. S. Eliot said: "Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them. There is no third."
He was born in Florence, Italy, in 1265. Italy in those days was not a united country, but a collection of mostly small city-states. Feuds and power struggles between noble families were a constant source of wars between states and of turmoil and civil war within them. Dante, heir of a poor but noble family, was one of the seven elected officials in charge of the government of Florence, when an accidental collision in the street during the May Festival in 1300 led to a brawl that escalated into a civil war that ultimately got Dante's party overthrown and its leaders (including Dante) exiled from Florence. He spent the rest of his life in exile, pining for his native city.
In 1293 he published a book called the Vita Nuova ("The New Life"), in which he relates how he fell in love with a young girl (Beatrice), and found his chief happiness in thinking of her, and looking at her from afar. In 1304 or shortly thereafter he published De Vulgari Eloquentia, an argument for writing poems and other works in the language that people speak (in his case, Italian) rather than in Latin. At the same time he wrote Il Convivio ("The Banquet"), in which he discusses grammar, and styles of poetry, and complains that his own poems, and in particular some of the things he said in the Vito Nuova, have been much misunderstood. In 1313 he published De Monarchia ("On Monarchy" or "A Treatise on Government"), in which he argued that the authority of a secular prince is not derived from the authority of the church, and is not given him by the pope, but comes directly from God (although in his exercise of it he ought, like every other Christian, to be guided by the moral instruction of the spiritual authority).
When he began writing his masterpiece, the Commedia, we do not know. (A "comedy," as traditionally defined, is a story that "begins in sorrow and ends in joy". Dante called his work simply "The Comedy." Later Italian writers speaking of the work called it "The Divine Comedy," by which name it is usually known today.) It appears that he had finished the first of its three parts by 1314, and the last only shortly before his death on 14 September 1321. (Because that is the Feast of the Holy Cross, he is remembered on the following day.)
The plot of the Comedy is straightforward. It begins with Dante lost and walking in a Dark Wood, unable to remember how he got there or how long he has been walking. He sees a mountain and tries to get out of the wood by climbing it, but is driven back by three beasts that bar his path. He runs in panic, sees a man approaching, and asks for help. The man replies: I am the poet Virgil. You cannot get out of the wood by climbing the mountain. You must follow me, and I will take you the long way round. Your Lady Beatrice has sent me to guide you, through the depths of Hell and up the slopes of Purgatory, to meet her in the country of the Blessed." Dante then follows Virgil, who conducts him through Hell, a vast funnel-shaped region under the surface of the earth, with a series of terraces that form ever-narrowing circles on which various kinds of evil deeds are punished, down to the center. They reach the tip of the funnel, located at the center of the earth, "the point toward which all things down-weigh", where the directions "up" and "down" are reversed, and find a small tunnel or pathway cut through the rock that leads them finally out on the other side of the earth, directly opposite Jerusalem, at the foot of Mount Purgatory, which is surrounded by cornices on which the seven basic kinds of inclination to sin are purged and corrected. They climb the mount and at its summit they find the earthly Paradise, the Eden from which our first parents were expelled when they turned aside from a relation of loving obedience to God and of loving trust in Him. There Beatrice meets Dante, and conducts him upward through the planetary spheres. Finally, he soars beyond the planets, beyond the stars, and beholds the whole company of Heaven assembled together, and is given a vision of the glory of God Himself. And here the poem ends.
In Part One of the Comedy, Inferno (Hell), we see those who have chosen evil, and have rejected the rescuing grace of God, enduring the consequences of their choice.
First, in the upper circles of Hell we see sins of Incontinence, of lack of self-control, sins of those who would have said, "I couldn't help it!" There are those who could not Say No to others, dramatically represented by unlawful lovers (though a mother who ruins her child's teeth and his health because she cannot refuse him all the sweets he cries for would be an equally appropriate example). Next, there are those who cannot Say No to themselves, dramatically represented by the gluttonous. And thus are shown other kinds of choices to turn away from God in pursuit of a false good. Each chooser is living forever with what he has chosen. The lovers, if asked what they wanted, would have said, "To be with each other forever." In Dante's vision, they are forever joined, and circle forever like a flock of birds, born on the howling wind of their own passions. The sullen lie forever buried in a muddy marsh, their bubbles rising to the surface as if to say, "While we lived, we took no joy in the pleasant things around us, preferring to cling to our resentments and nurse our grudges, and now we nurse them still throughout eternity."
Passing the circles of Incontinence, we come to those of Violence, of those who have injured or sought to injure others, or self, or God (or Nature, the child of God, or Art (human productivity), the child of Nature).
Beneath these lie the circles of Fraud, the place of those who not only injured others but betrayed their confidence to do so.
Here we see those who made their careers through flattery and the debasement of language wallowing forever in a ditch full of bullshit.
Here we see hypocrites, plodding forever around in their circle:
And now we saw a people decked with paint, Who trod their circling way with tear and groan And slow, slow steps, seeming subdued and faint
They all wore cloaks, with deep hoods forward thrown Over their eyes, and shaped in fashion quite Like the great cowls the monks wear at Cologne;
Outwardly they were gilded dazzling bright, But all within was lead, and weighed thereby, King Frederick's copes would have seemed feather-light.
O weary mantle for eternity! Once more we turned to the left, and by their side Paced on, intent upon their mournful cry.
Here we find the moat of thieves. Because they refused to distinguish "mine" and "thine", they remain forever in a society in which not even their bodies are their own, but may be snatched from them at any time by a fellow thief, at which they are left to steal a body from someone else, and so on. Dante describes several such exchanges. One takes place when a thief in the body of a reptile bites (on the navel) a thief in a human body, whereupon they exchange shapes. The passage is too long to quote in full, but it begins:
And just as a lizard, with a quick, slick slither, Flicks across the highway from hedge to hedge, Fleeter than a flash, in the battering dog-day weather,Passing the circles of Fraud Simple, we come to those of Fraud Complex, the place of those who betrayed, not just fellow humans, but those to whom they had a special obligation to be faithful: traitors to kindred, traitors to country, traitors to their invited guests, traitors to those to whom they have sworn allegiance. And so past Satan at the very bottom of the universe, and up the long path down which trickles the stream of Lethe (the river of forgetfulness), up toward remembrance, to emerge at last on the other side of the earth, free of the salt and heat and noise and sweat and stink of Hell, free to look once more upon the stars.
A fiery little monster, livid, in a rage, Black as any peppercorn, came and made a dart At the guts of the others, and leaping to engage
One of the pair, it pierced him at the part Through which we first draw food; then loosed its grip And fell before him, outstretched and apart.
Many freshman survey courses in The World's Great Literature are planned by those who think that the student ought to read some Dante, but are unwilling or unable to budget course time to study the whole Comedy, and so assign only Part I, the Inferno (Hell). The result is that many students read only Part I, and are left with the impression that this is the really worth-while part of the poem, and that the rest, if they read it, would be a letdown. This is a major mistake. The poem get steadily better as it proceeds. (The only real awkwardnesses that I have noticed are in the first three of the 100 cantos that make up the poem.)
Dante and Virgil emerge from Hell at the foot of Mount Purgatory.
As they climb the mountain, they find seven cornices on which penitent and redeemed sinners are cleansed by the grace of God from the seven sinful tendencies which hinder them from full harmony with the will of God. The treatment may sometimes be painful, but they eagerly embrace it (As an aerobics instructor might put it: "Go for the burn!"), knowing that through it God is bringing their wills into complete conformity with His own. On the first cornice, that of Pride, the proud circle the mountain, crawling low in a position of humility, bearing heavy burdens on their backs, and praying the Lord's Prayer (with interpolations appropriate to those who are learning the Virtue of Humility).
Our Father, dwelling in the Heavens, nowise As circumscribed, but as the things above, Thy first effects, are dearer in Thine eyes,
Hallowed Thy name be and the Power thereof, By every creature, as right meet it is We praise the tender effluence of Thy love.
Let come to us, let come Thy kingdom's peace; If it come not, we've no power of our own To come to it, for all our subtleties.
Like as with glad Hosannas at Thy throne Thine angels offer up their wills alway, So let men offer theirs, that Thine be done.
Our daily manna give to us this day, Without which he that through this desert wild Toils most to speed goes backward on his way.
As we, with all our debtors reconciled, Forgive, do thou forgive us, nor regard Our merits, but upon our sins look mild.
Put not our strength, too easily ensnared And overcome, to proof with the old foe; But save us from him, for he tries it hard.
This last prayer is not made for us--we know Dear Lord, that it is needless--but for those Who still remain behind us we pray so.
Thus God schools these Christians, these penitent and redeemed sinners, in the virtue of humility, and so delivers them, not only from the consequences of their sins (justification) but from the sins themselves (sanctification). And so, on the six subsequent cornices, they are purged of the vices of envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust, and the opposing virtues are instilled in them, all by God's grace at work in them.
At last Dante, still led by Virgil, reaches the top of the mountain, and there he is met by his Lady, Beatrice, whom Virgil has mentioned to him repeatedly throughout the journey when he particularly needed to be encouraged and strengthened. Here at last he sees her in person, and she prepares him for his journey through Heaven.
Now, at last, in the third part of the Comedy, we have the homecoming. With Beatrice at his side, Dante mounts up instantly from the peak of Mount Purgatory to the first of the heavens. In medieval astronomy, following a tradition going back to the ancient Greeks and earlier, the earth is considered to be surrounded by a set of whirling transparent spheres, each carrying with it one of the planets. A "planet" here means a heavenly body which is not one of the fixed stars, but moves (as seen from the earth) around the belt of constellations known as the Zodiac. Counting from the earth outward, these are Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn. Outside these spheres is that of the fixed stars, then that of the Primum Mobile (the first moved thing, the sphere whose motion imparts motion to all the other spheres), and finally the Empyrean, the unimaginable boundless space that "has no 'where' but in the mind of God." (For a discussion of the medieval cosmology, see The Discarded Image, by C S Lewis.) As Dante moves upward through the spheres, he sees in each sphere some of the redeemed, perfected, and glorified Christians whose lives and callings to serve God are in some way represented by the characteristics of that planet. In the sphere of Mars, for example, he meets martyrs and others who have shed their blood for the faith of Jesus. In the sphere of Jupiter, he meets righteous kings and judges, and those who have served justice. In the sphere of the Sun, he meets theologians and others who have enlightened their fellow Christians and promoted clear thinking about God and His works. Finally, he soars beyond the planets, beyond the stars, and beholds the whole company of Heaven assembled together, and is given a vision of the glory of God Himself. And here the poem ends.
One answer, then, to the question, "What is the Comedy about?" is that it deals with the afterlife, with the eternal destinies of those who have accepted the love of God and those who have rejected it. Not that Dante believed that those who have betrayed their countries or families or friends will spend eternity frozen in ice. But he did believe that to cut oneself off from every bond of loyalty and affection is to undergo a hardness of heart, a loss of human feeling, that is appropriately pictured by the image of perpetual frozenness. He believed that God is the center of reality, and that the nature of a thing is only to be understood by considering it as a created thing, by viewing it in its relation to God its Creator. He therefore further believed that a man who insists on regarding himself as the center of the universe is denying his fundamental nature, denying the deepest reality about himself, and is thus living a lie twenty-four hours a day. Accordingly, he speaks of the souls in Hell as "those who have lost the good of intellect." And the poem is, on one level, an imaginative account of the consequences in eternity of being in a right or a wrong relation with God.
However, it would be a mistake to suppose that the poem deals only with this. The work has multiple meanings. Dante illustrates his method in a letter to his patron, Can Grande, by referring to the opening of Psalm 114: "When Israel came out of Egypt..." He notes that this refers to (1) The historical deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, (2) Our redemption by the action of Christ, (3) the conversion of the soul from the wretchedness of sin to the state of grace, and (4) the departure of the redeemed soul from this life to the liberty of eternal glory. He goes on to say that his work has multiple allegorical meanings as well as its literal one ("the state of souls after death").
The fourfold interpretation is not original with Dante. Jewish scholars use the term PARDESH, which is a four-letter acronym (P,R,D,Sh) for four levels of interpretation, corresponding roughly to Dante's literal, moral, analogical, and mystical. This idea of fourfold interpretation was taken over into Christian commentary on Holy Scripture by the great third-century scholar Origen, of ALexandria, Egypt, and through him became the standard approach of the Alexandrian tradition of Biblical Studies. It shows up in some unexpected places. For example, in the book, Who Is Ayn Rand? by Nathaniel Branden (now out of print and hard to find), Branden describes a lecture at which Ayn Rand said: "I do not believe in writing by instinct or feeling. I can give reasons for every paragraph I write." A listener read a five-line paragraph from the novel Atlas Shrugged, and asked her to analyze it. She replied by distinguishing four levels of meaning and explaining how the paragraph functioned on each level. The four levels corresponded very nicely to the four levels of PARDESH, or of Origen, or of Dante.
On one level, the Comedy can be read as a fictional journey by Dante through the three Kingdoms of the Dead, and a description of what happens to those who go there. On another level, it is a journey through the individual human heart. Dante looks within himself and finds there a capacity for evil. He sees how it is possible for a man to turn from God, to consent to sin, at first perhaps in ways so plausible, so innocent-seeming, that the man is not fully aware of what he is doing ("So heavy was I, and so full of sleep, When first I stumbled from the narrow way"). Then small deviations from integrity are followed by larger ones, and what could be called failures in moments of weakness become definite choices to do what is wrong. And so a man is doing this year without a qualm things that a year ago he would have been outraged at the suggestion that he would ever do. The Inferno can be read as an account of how one sin leads naturally to another, from almost-innocent indulgence to ultimate treachery. This accounts for some of the scenes in the Inferno where Dante is rude or worse to some of the sinners he meets there. On the literal level, this can be explained and defended. But on another level, it is Dante facing up to the fact of the corruption in his own soul, and recoiling in horror--not Dante smugly condemning the sins of some stranger, but Dante accepting and identifying with God's judgement on Dante's own sinfulness. It is Dante the sinner realizing that he needs help, the necessarily preliminary to Dante the penitent accepting God's offer to forgive him, cleanse him, reform and transform and renew him, as shown in the Purgatorio. And this in turn is a preliminary to the account in the Paradiso of life in union with Christ, eternal life begun already here on earth. (Christ, particularly in the Gospel of John, frequently speaks of Eternal Life in the present tense, as something that the believer has now, rather than something he will receive after death, or at the Last Judgement.)
Some time later, around 1305, he wrote a second book, Il Convivio (The Banquet), a puzzling and incoherent work, in which he said that the Lady in the Window stands for Philosophy. He further seemed to say that he now thought of his youthful devotion to Beatrice as adolescent emotionalism, all very well when one is young, but that he wanted the reader to know that he was now a mature, sensible fellow, full of the wisdom that comes from philosophical study and experience, and not one to be swept off his feet by his emotions, or to let his heart rule his head. He was not retracting what he had said earlier about Beatrice, but was setting the memory of her aside, with all due respect, while he got on with the business at hand.
Much of the literature of the late Middle Ages is dominated by the notion of the knight in the service of his lady. A knight was expected to find a lady who for him represented the ideal of what a woman should be. He was to be absolutely devoted to her and spend his life in her service, his greatest reward to see her smile. In his dedication to Beatrice, Dante was behaving in a way that was regarded by his fellow citizens as obviously the proper way for a young man to behave. And the poem fits the model of poems about a knight travelling through many dangers on a quest, that leads him at last to his Lady. For a history and analysis of the idea of Courtly Love, the notion that a man is noblest when overwhelmed by the splendor of a lady, and ready to make any sacrifice to please her, see the book The Allegory of Love, by C S Lewis. (Lewis is well known as a Christian writer, but his official title at the end of his life was Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English Literature at Cambridge University; and this book was written as an academic and literary study, certainly begun and perhaps completed before he became a Christian.) See also the further notes on the topic in Lewis's later book The Four Loves.
Dante actually goes a bit deeper than this. Beatrice had been for him a source of joy. The mere sight of her had transformed his life. In the Vita Nuova, he had poured forth unabashed a testimony to all that she meant to him. Later, he turned aside from that joy. He accepted the notion that Real Men don't go overboard about things. He found it embarrassing to recall that he had once made such a fuss about Beatrice. He wrote the Convivio to show, among other things, that he had grown up. Later, he realized that what he bragged of in the Convivio was in fact a fall from grace. To have set his love for Beatrice aside because it was conflicting with a higher good would have been laudable. But he was setting it aside because it conflicted with his desire to be Joe Cool, because he wanted to be in control of the situation, to live his life untroubled with the agonies and distresses that come of giving one's heart away. He was in Hell. His sin was hardness of heart. And then came a renewal of grace. Beatrice could not reach him directly, but she sent Virgil to speak to him. Through the craft of writing poetry, through the study of philosophy, through the ordinary civil virtues that the historical poet Virgil had celebrated in his verse, through all that Virgil stood for in the medieval imagination, Dante's imagination was re-awakened, and he remembered what Beatrice had meant to him, and his love for her was re-kindled, and he forgot about being Joe Cool, and undertook to write a poem about his joy, sharing it with others.
He might have written, as some modern poets do, in a manner that made it intelligible only to a small circle of the elite. But he did not. His renewed love had taught him humility. In addition, he wanted to tell what he had learned to as many readers as possible. So he wrote his poem, not in Latin, as his contemporaries would have expected, but in Italian, so that ordinary men and women could read it with no special training or background. And he simply told a story, unpretentious, entertaining, an adventure story, a page-turner.
Another approach found in Christian circles is called the Affirmative Way. Here, instead of shoving the universe to one side (an interesting picture!) so as to see God face to face with no barriers, the contemplative undertakes to see God in and through the images that bear His likeness. Thus, he may experience sexual love between husband and wife as an image of the love between Christ and the Church, or between Christ and an individual human. Or he may look at a policeman directing traffic--or a conductor directing an orchestra--or a caller directing a square dance--and see in him the image of God directing and controlling the universe, that order may prevail and all things may find their true freedom in conformity to the pattern. Or, like Dante, he (she) may look at another human being who somehow seems to sum up in her (his) person the meaning of life and the goal of all desire, to be a window through whom the Glory is revealed. And contemplating and adoring glory as revealed in that person becomes the contemplation and adoration of the glory of God Himself. The image with which one starts need not even be human. We are told that we are to regard God with awe and fear. To many hearers, this suggests nothing but prudential efforts to be safe. God is someone who can smite you if you disobey Him, so you had better obey. Some persons have found the answer in the sight of a towering, unapproachable mountain crag. It is not dangerous--climbing it is not the issue, we are just looking at it. But it is majestic. It is awesome. It gives us (some of us, at any rate) a feeling of awe and wonder, of something like fear and something like respect, a feeling that we are in the presence of something not to be trifled with, something mysterious and tremendous, a feeling not easy to put into words, but one that helps us understand what is meant by the fear and awe of God.
The following of the Negative Way is found in several religions. As far as I know, the following of the Affirmative Way is peculiarly Christian. One might expect this, since all Christians are called to the contemplation of Christ, the visible image of the invisible God, the one who said, "He who has seen me has seen God." And so, the mind and heart and imagination of the Christian are drawn upward along the Affirmative Way, from the contemplation of the majestic or the otherwise evocative in nature (the towering crag, the thundering cataract, the ocean waves, the call of a wild goose, the peacefulness of a canoe gliding through a bayou with the water lapping gently against its side), from the contemplation of another human somehow suddenly seen as glorious, from those in whom we plainly see the love and holiness of God at work, from saints and angels and archangels, from Mary the historic and universal God-bearer, to Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, in Whom the Image and the Unimageable are One.
My advice, then, is to read the three volumes in the Penguin edition (ISBN 0-14-044006-2, 0-14-044046-1, and 0-14-044105-0 respectively, with prices currently around $6 or $7 a volume; Warning: Penguin also offers another translation, so check the ISBN numbers, or make sure that your volumes say "Sayers" or "Sayers and Reynolds" on the cover). If you are an impoverished student, ask your librarian, or get a couple of friends to chip in and buy a set to be passed around. It is possible to read the poem while skipping the notes and comments altogether, but I have always found it very satisfying to read the book strictly in order: the Introduction, then the first canto followed by the notes for that canto, then the next canto, then the notes for that canto, and so on, just as printed. It works for me. Your mileage may vary. If you can locate copies, by all means read Sayers' two volumes, Introductory Papers on Dante and Further Papers on Dante. They are a delight. (Unfortunately, they are not always in print. My oldest copies are from Harper Brothers, then from Methuen and from Barnes and Noble. The current books in print lists only Further Papers on Dante, Greenwood Press, ISBN 0-313-22005-0 at $35. Try a college library or a good large public library.) To these volumes, let me add a third, not primarily about Dante, but nonetheless relevant: The Poetry of Search and The Poetry of Statement.
For a further exploration of the Affirmative Way, I refer the reader to the writings of Charles Williams. (That's Charles Walter Stansby Williams of London and Oxford, who died in 1945.) I suggest beginning with his novel The Greater Trumps, then perhaps some of his other novels, and then two of his books of poetry, Taliessin Through Logres and The Region of The Summer Stars, both dealing with the story of King Arthur and the Round Table. C. S. Lewis has a book of comments on these, called Arthurian Torso. It includes, besides comments by Lewis, the unfinished fragment of Williams's proposed book, The Figure of Arthur. And that reminds me: Williams also wrote a book on Dante called The Figure of Beatrice.
Two well-known science-fiction writers, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, have written their own (prose) version of the Inferno, putting it in a twentieth-century context (Pocket Books, 1976, ISBN 0-671-82058-3). I enjoyed it, without necessarily agreeing with all their presuppositions. But I do not recommend reading it before reading Dante's Comedy.
Another book to be mentioned here is The Great Divorce, by C. S. Lewis. It is not an obvious and admitted updating of Dante, in the way that Niven and Pournelle's Inferno is, (or in the way that Lewis's own Pilgrim's Regress is of Bunyan), but Lewis's debt to Dante is clear, and someone who has read Lewis first and then Dante will probably say often: "Oh, now I see why Lewis handled that scene the way he did -- he was following the tradition of Dante."
Prayer (traditional language)
Almighty God, who didst move thy servant Dante Alighieri to portray in magificent poetry thy steadfast rejection of sin, thy loving correction of those who repent, and the joy of abiding in thy presence forever: Grant us the grace to acknowledge our sins and to see clearly the utter emptiness of life without thee, the grace to amend our lives and to embrace willingly the means whereby thou dost perfect us in holiness and love of thee, and the grace to abide in thy will and rejoice in thy presence both in this life and in the life to come; the which we ask through Jesus Christ our Savior, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and ever.Prayer (contemporary language)
Almighty God, who didst move thy servant Dante Alighieri to proclaim thy judgement against sin, thy cleansing power, and thy steadfast love: Bring us to acknowledge our sins and our helplessness, enable us to welcome and embrace thy loving correction, and conform us in all things to the likeness of thy beloved Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
Almighty God, who moved your servant Dante Alighieri to portray in magificent poetry your steadfast rejection of sin, your loving correction of those who repent, and the joy of abiding in your presence forever: Grant us the grace to acknowledge our sins and to see clearly the utter emptiness of life without you, the grace to amend our lives and to embrace willingly the means by which you perfect us in holiness and love for you, and the grace to abide in your will and rejoice in your presence both in this life and in the life to come; the which we ask through Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and ever.
Almighty God, who moved your servant Dante Alighieri to proclaim your judgement against sin, your cleansing power, and your steadfast love: Bring us to acknowledge our sins and our helplessness, enable us to welcome and embrace your loving correction, and conform us in all things to the likeness of your beloved Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and ever.